On the nature of 20th century reading experience

Recent posts by The Reading Experience here and here on Stephen King made me wonder about the following:

  1. What is the nature of the reading experience today as compared to the 19th century?
  2. Can one measure a book’s success by counting the number of film adaptations? (Dan mentions that he likes the film adaptations of the novels of Stephen King better than the novels on which they are based.)
  3. What is the influence of style and content, (i.e. the split between poetics and storytelling) on the longevity of a novel? (the conclusion of the comments on Dan’s posts seemed to be that Stephen King is indeed a ‘bad writer’ if you consider his style, but a good writer if you consider his storytelling abilities.)

Question 1. The reading experience. The 19th century reading experience has been defined by Stéphane Mallarmé who is quoted as saying “Je ne sais pas d’autre bombe, qu’un livre.” Amos Vogel has successfully defined the film experience in the age of cinema (it has changed since the arrival of television and the VCR). But I have never found a satisfying definition of what the reading experience is in the 20th century since the advent of film and television, today’s main bearers of fiction/storytelling.

Now I don’t want to go as far as some poststructuralist theorists who claim to be able to read everything: from novels to films, from shopping behaviour to football games. To me the reading experience can be:

  • travelling and having light to be able to read a story in a book in order to kill time.
  • reading a book because it is so good that it provides a unique experience that cannot be duplicated in any other medium (moving images, video games, …)

The perfect example of the latter is Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow: Or the Nature of the Offense (1991). It provides you with an experience which I believe to be nearly unfilmable. See also my notes on filmability/unfilmability on the ‘adaptation’ page mentioned before.

Question 2: Film adaptations. Let’s extend the meaning of reading and connote it with the consumption of fiction and connote the term fiction with the art of storytelling.

Let’s also analyse the notion of ‘good writer’ and substitute ‘good’ with the notion of greatness. I’ve defined a work’s greatness by its ability to generate articulative responses.

Let’s now focus on the history of the consumption of fiction. Its history begins with telling tall stories around a campfire, which evolves into theater, and then — in the 19th century only — the consumption of fiction revolves around reading it (first serials, then in separate books called novels). But as soon as the medium film is invented, film takes over the consumption of storytelling/fiction. So the supreme popularity of reading fiction is about 100 years; from the 1830s (first romans feuilletons) to the 1930s (talking movies).

So I think that there is some truth in stating that the most successful novels are those which are most frequently adapted to film — in the sense that these novels — have continued to generate articulative responses, responses which did not have to be expressed in their own medium. (see also a novel’s success by the number of times it has been translated.)

To back this up, some authors and the number of film adaptations of their works:

Virginia Woolf: 5 film adaptations, Eugène Sue: 19 film adaptations, Marcel Proust: 7 film adaptations, Jack Kerouac: 10 film adaptations, Emile Zola: 75 film adaptations, Stephen King: 105 film adaptations, Victor Hugo: 124 film adaptations, Fyodor Dostoyevsky: 132 film adaptations, Charles Dickens: 235 film adaptations and William Shakespeare: 663 adaptations. (source: IMDb)

Question 3. Is it style or content which makes some authors’ works more adaptable for film than others (and thus secure their longevity)?I can’t answer it easily. I have thought about this with regards to the notion of intertextuality here. But a remark supposedly by Eisenstein confuses me. He says that it is Dickens’s style that makes his work easily adaptable for film. Admittedly, I have this from an older version of Wikipedia on adaptation, so the source of Eisenstein’s comment is not confirmed:


Sergei Eisenstein noted that the novels of Charles Dickens were filmed more often than any material except the Bible, and he explained this by Dickens’s style. According to Eisenstein, a good source novel contains a great deal of action and extensive physical description. Novels that feature internal struggles and intellectual debate are difficult to film, but novels that offer descriptions of scenery and which posit their debates in plotting are easy to film. Since Eisenstein’s time, film theorists have pointed out that film’s tools and fiction’s tools are radically different. While film can achieve metaphor, it is difficult and time consuming to do so (with symbolism being more common). Additionally, stream of consciousness and internal monologues can only be filmed by means of intrusive and illusion-breaking techniques (such as voice overs). Therefore, novelists such as Stephen King and Michael Crichton, who concentrate on action and externals, are readier for film than Graham Swift or James Joyce would be. —http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Film_adaptation [Sept 2005]


4 thoughts on “On the nature of 20th century reading experience

  1. fuchsia groan

    Eisenstein didn’t read Dickens’ works in the original language, did he? I haven’t read Dickens in translation, but I suspect that much of what is striking and bizarre and recondite in his style simply wouldn’t come across. Maybe by “style” Eisenstein meant the serial format, which demanded cliffhangers and constant external action.

    Your thesis is persuasive, but I tend to think there’s something fortuitous about which books make compelling film adaptations (and hence generate more). Stoker’s Dracula and Shelley’s Frankenstein, for instance, whatever you think of their literary value (I prefer the latter) have generated dozens of adaptations because of the mythical resonance of their content. When it comes to style… most college freshman can’t read either of these books, sad to say. They simply don’t have the tools, in part because of how reading has changed since the 19th century. (That’s a generalization, but I’ve seldom found a student in my classes who actually enjoyed reading Victorian prose.)

    Now, King’s Carrie is so painfully accessible that a 10-year-old can enjoy it, but I would argue it generates successful film adaptations for precisely the same reason as Frankenstein: it tapped a vein of myth, cultural unconscious, whatever you want to call it.

    Many film adaptations of resonant books have completely eclipsed (justly or not) the novels that inspired them. I think of Franju’s Les Yeux sans Visage, but surely there are many more. Then there are novelists like Woolf, who in my opinion get filmic treatment only because there’s a small but steady market for adaptations of Literature–I’m sure I’ve seen some of those adaptations; indeed, it was a BBC version of To the Lighthouse that brought me to the novel, but the words have completely eclipsed the images in my mind.

    I tend to think that when a novel has an extremely distinctive style, the film version is a distinct work, a parallel one if you will, that is good or bad completely on its own merits, more an “inspired by” than an actual adaptation. A Clockwork Orange is highly stylized as both book and film, but necessarily stylized in different ways. Madame Bovary is highly stylized as a novel and tends to be flatly realistic as a film, which is why those adaptations fall flat for me– no one has figured out a visual equivalent to Flaubert’s ironic use of idees recues. Or maybe they have, but you’ll need to find it in modern film, Altman and such, because 19th-century idees recues are now idees obscures. Kafka has been adapted plenty, but never, never right in my opinion, because it’s very hard to articulate what distinguishes Kafka’s seemingly plain style (Jorgen Kobs, if I’m spelling his name right, did a good job). I think Office Space is closer to Kafka than any Kafka adaptation I’ve seen.

  2. jahsonic

    Dear Fuchsia,

    Thanks again for your food for thought. Regarding the Kafka translations, I’ve just read an essay by Coetzee on Muir’s translations of Kafka (and their shortcomings).

    I read it in an essay bundle called ‘Stranger Shores’ which I can recommend.

    The Kafka essay was originally published here


  3. krisgravity

    On the ‘unique experience’, Question 1, answer 2.

    Saying that the reading experience is the unique experience of reading a book is not saying anything really. What makes it unique?

    The main difference between consuming a story through reading as opposed to other media is the freedom of the consumer. The main reason being that the reader can choose his own tempo and order in which he consumes the story. The different possible angels to a story or even the different meanings of words and phrases are much more accesible if you read a text because there is no middle man telling you what to focus on and because the consumer has more time to give meaning to what he consumes. And, of course, written language pretty much sucks as a mediator of cristal clear meaning which gives it more options of interpretation than let’s say moving images accompanied by a soundtrack and spoken dialogue.

    The reading experience is the consuming of a story through the medium which has potentialy the most freedom for the consumer.

  4. jahsonic

    Dunno, would love to see the film version of Red Cities though, with a good voice-over, maybe a 3 hour version?

    What I mean to say, I do not mind to be stripped of some measure of freedom in return for accessibility.

    Look at it as an audio book, with optional video.


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